“I don’t have a scrap more talent than so many actors in Chicago. I just happened to be blessed by being lucky.”
It’s not the kind of line you would expect to hear from Martin “Marty” Crane, the curmudgeonly father to two pretentious sons living in a Seattle penthouse. And that’s because it’s not. In a 1996 interview with the Chicago Tribune, John spoke about trying to find a balance between being a publically recognised face and his desire for privacy. His personal eloquence and introspection are in stark contrast to the role from which he gained his ubiquity. Martin Crane was brash, short-tempered, and a perpetual stick in the mud. Even his sense of humour was pointed.
Although he’s best known for playing Marty Crane, John Mahoney’s story started long before the sitcom brought psychoanalysis humorously into our living rooms. It started in Manchester, his birth city, from which he was temporarily evacuated during World War II with his seven siblings (he was the penultimate) and his parents. At 19, inspired by his older sister’s new life in Illinois, Mahoney swapped an offer to join Birmingham Rep to head to America. That was where his acting story stopped; temporarily, anyway.
He held a variety of jobs — teaching English at Western Illinois University, working as a hospital orderly and, in 1970, he moved to Chicago to edit a medical journal. It was during this time in Chicago that one might say his passion was rekindled. Mahoney began taking acting classes at Wisdom Bridge Theatre. That was where his acting story started, again. He landed, almost immediately, a role in David Mamet’s The Water Engine. Four years later, John Malkovich asked him to join the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. At the time, a fledgeling company, it is now renowned for finding and producing inimitable stage and tv actors.
Cast in a variety of roles at Steppenwolf Theatre, including Lyle Kessler’s play Orphans and John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves for which he won a Tony for best actor, Mahoney’s champions career blossomed on stage, but his fame ignited on the screen as Marty Crane in Fraiser. Marty Crane offered a much needed healthy dose of grounding to his two poncey sons, who most often found themselves in foibles of their own devising. Marty’s sardonic snipes were tempered with his own poignant introspection – an infrequent occurrence made all the more special by its rarity.
This ubiquity was hard for Mahoney to balance with his need for a private life. He remained living in a Chicago suburb, where he was often allowed to slip into anonymity, “eating out and going to the cinema on his own, and spending quiet weekends with his fishing rod.” (The Guardian, 2002.)
When Fraiser ended in 2004, Mahoney returned to his home — and returned to the stage. He played the Old Man in the Broadway revival of Prelude to a Kiss, was a part of the ensemble cast of The Birthday Party, at his alma mater, as it were, of Steppenwolf Theatre. His final stage role was in The Rembrandt, from September to November 2017.
John Mahoney passed away at 77 at hospice care, in his home city of Chicago. He will be remembered by the masses as Marty Crane, by fellow actors as a force majeure, and by all as one of the few and hard to come by good guys in the acting world.